Certain recorded drum breaks, i.e., drum patterns played without other instrumentation, have achieved iconic status, largely as a result of being frequently “sampled” in other recordings. Although these highly influential drum breaks (sometimes called breakbeats) have been integral to much of the hip-hop and other music produced in recent decades, there has been little scholarly investigation of their rhythmic features. To that end, this study examined 30 classic drum breaks from the “breakbeat canon,” focusing primarily on sixteenth-note swing (a systematic delay of even-numbered sixteenth-note divisions of the pulse). Such swing was common among the examined drum breaks, though the magnitude of swing was often fairly subtle (median swing ratio = 1.2:1). In contrast to some findings regarding jazz drumming, the magnitude of swing was uncorrelated with tempo, though the ranges of both variables were somewhat constrained. Backbeat delay (a systematic delay of snare drum at even-numbered beats) was found to be frequently present at beat 2, but not at beat 4. Additionally, this study introduces a quantity called “swing density,” defined as the proportion of even-numbered divisions (at the swing level) that contain events. The importance of this quantity to the perceptual effect of swing is discussed.

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